Jerry Blumenthal, AB’58, AM’59, and Gordon Quinn, AB’65

From left, Jerry Blumenthal, AB’58, AM’59, and Gordon Quinn, AB’65, in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy Kartemquin Films)

Documentary vision

For 50 years, Kartemquin Films has focused its lenses on social forces and the human lives they shape.

Kartemquin Films has occupied the same building for nearly all of its half-century existence, but it’s a different place now. The turreted structure wraps around the corner of Wellington and Wolcott, just over the western edge of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. A Stewart-Warner manufacturing plant was down the street when the documentary film production house arrived in 1973, seven years after its founding by three young UChicago alumni. But by the mid-1980s the factory had been replaced by “a gated Yuppie community,” late Kartemquin partner Jerry Blumenthal, AB’58, AM’59, lamented in a historical essay about the organization.

Inside, the urban chic he dreaded feels far away. Post-It Notes on doors designate editing suites. At the top of a creaky staircase, framed letters from Chicago mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, neither very popular in these offices, mark milestones in Kartemquin’s history and speak to its significance as a Chicago institution. As if to balance the political scales, there’s also a 1981 note from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua expressing thanks for the gift of a camera “to document the revolution.”

Three Emmys clustered on a mantel with other awards nod to the mainstream recognition Kartemquin has increasingly attracted. The nonprofit was approaching 30 years of making documentaries that were politically trenchant and critically acclaimed, but not widely seen, when its 26th film, Hoop Dreams, won the audience award for best documentary at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to earn more than $11 million worldwide at the box office (it had cost $700,000 to make).

Recent movies, like The Interrupters (2011) and Life Itself (2014), have also received national attention. Now, with a golden anniversary gala on the calendar and 10 films in production, Kartemquin is still the artistic force for social justice its founders envisioned, just more so. Today cofounder and artistic director Gordon Quinn, AB’65, the last of the founding partners still in the organization, shares an office with Kartemquin’s bulky first camera, a 16mm with reels protruding like Mickey Mouse ears. A Chicago Tribune appreciation of Blumenthal, written after his death in 2014, is framed nearby. Fifty years and more than 50 films generate a lot of history. In the offices, that history adorns walls, overflows shelves, and infuses conversations even as a new generation of filmmakers, staff, and interns expand Kartemquin’s filmography and build on its philosophy. Some are too young to remember the height of Hoop Dreams passion, let alone the group’s founding influences. But they carry on the founders’ passion for “sparking democracy through documentary.”  

Quinn calls Kartemquin today “a full-blown media arts organization.” That’s a long way from its three-man beginnings in the Hyde Park Bank building in 1966, and even from the relatively ad-hoc operation of a decade ago. He has been there from day one, the “quin” in Kartemquin, a portmanteau formed with the last names of the other founders—Stan Karter, EX’66, and Jerry Temaner, AB’57, whose tenures were brief. The three heard echoes of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin in the name. The filmmakers Kartemquin.

Like the crew on Eisenstein’s cinematic ship, they saw themselves as rebels against prevailing authority, although their most important filmmaking influences were more contemporary. As undergrads who belonged to Doc Films, they were entranced by the icons of the detached observational style called cinema verité—Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker. After seeing Leacock’s Happy Mother’s Day (1963), about the life of a South Dakota family in the weeks after the birth of quintuplets, Quinn said to himself, “That’s what I want to do.”

For Kartemquin’s first film, Home for Life (1966), he and Temaner followed two new residents of a home for the elderly. The filmmakers consciously kept themselves at a remove from the subjects, producing a fly-on-the-wall documentary without imposing a point of view. Scenes ran long—some excessively so, Temaner recalls some viewers saying—to capture life as it unfolded. “Our idea at that time,” he says, “was to give people the opportunity to figure out things themselves.”

Roger Ebert, EX’70, in his first year as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic, called Home for Life “extraordinarily moving,” and it was named Best American Film at the 1967 Chicago International Film Festival. Blumenthal joined that year, in order to dedicate himself “to a life of penury and pleasure, making movies, that is,” he wrote in his historical essay.

As the filmmakers honed their craft while supporting themselves on outside projects—industrial and educational films and the like—Kartemquin’s work became more overtly political. In the 1970s the organization operated as a collective (since the 1980s it has been a nonprofit organization). Leftist political positions superseded filmmaking skills as a prerequisite to join. Members represented the civil rights, black power, antiwar, and women’s liberation movements, among others. The “hustle committee” did the fundraising, which involved hauling projectors to bars and union halls for screenings.

Regular “structure and identity” meetings defined the collective’s priorities. The members debated whether to make narrow, interest-driven films or to appeal to wider audiences, and the more accomplished among them trained the others in camera, sound, and editing techniques. Blumenthal remembered the meetings as “complicated, comic, and doomed.” The films Kartemquin made in that era emerged from relationships with local activist groups such as the working-class youth movement Rising Up Angry, steel workers’ unions, and striking doctors at Cook County Hospital.

“We really made connections with what was going on in Chicago in a progressive way,” says cinematographer and videographer Judy Hoffman, a collective member who is now a professor of practice in UChicago’s cinema and media studies department. “What kinds of films did they need to get their work done?” Cinematographer Peter Kuttner, for example, was a founding member of Rising Up Angry.

A camera technician on dozens of Hollywood movies, he teaches film and media skills to low-income students through Chicago youth media projects and community organizations. His Kartemquin credits include Now We Live on Clifton (1974), about gentrification in working-class West Lincoln Park, and The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976), about the home-birth organization’s struggle to survive funding cuts.

Echoes of Kartemquin’s cinema verité influences remained, but the aesthetic of detachment had been cast off in favor of explicitly advancing the collective’s agenda. “We were making films with driving narrations, and very analytical,” Quinn says, “with a verité backbone to them.” There was a heartbeat too—the children at the center of Now We Live on Clifton who fear being forced out of their neighborhood, the young mother expecting her first baby in The Chicago Maternity Center.

The filmmakers focused on exposing and analyzing the external forces negatively affecting people’s lives, illustrating the consequences through individual stories but emphasizing social critique. Kartemquin’s films have always addressed social issues—immigration, urban violence, homelessness, health care, and economic issues from labor unions to unemployment to living on minimum wage—and Quinn once considered himself an activist first and foremost.

His perspective began to shift while at work with Blumenthal on their 1988 film Golub, about antiwar artist Leon Golub, AB’42. The documentary represented a “bridge,” Hoffman says, between the overtly political work that preceded it and the focus on emotional identification with individuals that defined subsequent films—to the greatest popular acclaim in Hoop Dreams. “The way that I think you get people to change their thinking is you approach them on an emotional level,” Quinn says now. “You make them feel something.”

Director Steve James’s story of Chicago high school basketball players Arthur Agee and William Gates aspiring to stardom brought a larger audience to issues Kartemquin had been addressing for decades. Because it was a tale of sports, family, and coming of age, Quinn says, Hoop Dreams drew viewers who otherwise might not have identified with the struggles of working-class inner-city life. “Lots and lots of people watched Hoop Dreams who would never watch a film about an inner-city family, ... but they watched Hoop Dreams. They spent almost three hours with those people,” he says, “and bonded with them.” Even if unsympathetic viewers aren’t persuaded to a filmmaker’s point of view, Quinn came to believe, establishing an emotional connection between viewer and subjects still bears fruit.

One of his favorite critiques came in an online comment responding to The New Americans (2004), a seven-hour miniseries that aired on PBS and chronicled four years in the lives of immigrants from India, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Middle East. The angry commenter saw through the filmmakers’ ploy. They were trying to make the audience identify with the film’s subjects by portraying them as human beings just like the viewers, with families they love and aspirations for their lives. “And I resent it.” To Quinn, that was validation. He hadn’t changed the commenter’s mind on the issue, but The New Americans had elicited an acknowledgment of the people beyond the political abstractions. “I’ll take that,” he says.  

The subjects and styles of Kartemquin films vary widely, but Quinn is always asking himself, “How can we show the consequences in people’s lives of the decisions that are made in a democracy?” The question echoes an idea Quinn encountered in the College that has bent the arc of his career. It comes from the educator and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who cofounded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Quinn wrote about it in his BA thesis and has used it in innumerable fundraising proposals since.

Scanning the spines on his office bookshelf, he finds what looks like a circa 1980s edition of Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems (Henry Holt and Company, 1927). He holds the paperback but quotes from memory: “Artists have always been the real purveyors of the news. For it’s not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation.”

News, in Dewey’s formulation, was transitory spectacle, undigested information or passing images of misfortune. “What we would call sensationalism,” Quinn says. Deep exploration of the real-world impact of policies, expression of the complex ways events shape people’s lives—that was the artist’s responsibility. It’s a responsibility Quinn continues to embrace, and to pass down to new generations of filmmakers. And Kartemquin’s stable of filmmakers and list of films are growing. Its 27 releases since 2000 represent more than half the organization’s total output.

Steve James has been prolific in the two decades since Hoop Dreams, with well received works such as Stevie (2002), The Interrupters (2011), and the Ebert biography Life Itself (2014). Peabody Award–winning filmmaker Maria Finitzo’s Kartemquin productions include Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita (2007) and In the Game (2015), about the struggles of low-income students on a high school soccer team in a predominantly Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. And Emmy nominee Joanna Rudnick’s In the Family (2008) explores the complexities of genetic testing while her On Beauty (2014) follows an erstwhile fashion photographer challenging our standard notions of beauty.

Kartemquin’s reputation in the independent documentary industry now attracts waves of new producers and directors. With her UChicago students, Hoffman says, the name carries almost mythological status. For executive director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and senior lecturer in the College Susan Gzesh, AB’72, Quinn’s founding philosophy was prescient. The students she teaches in the College today embrace visual culture, in particular documentary, as a medium for telling stories. In human rights studies, she says, it’s important that students “become more sophisticated producers and consumers of visual texts.”

Gzesh, a former member of Kartemquin’s board of directors, helped organize one of the first major Kartemquin retrospectives on campus in 2006 and has hosted Quinn and Blumenthal in her Contemporary Issues in Human Rights course to talk about making art that’s politically and artistically powerful. One former student of Hoffman’s, Dinesh Sabu, AB’06, is among the young filmmakers who have gravitated to Kartemquin. Sabu started as an intern almost a decade ago. He’s nearing the completion of his first feature-length documentary, Unbroken Glass. It tells the story of his parents, who both died when he was young, his mother by suicide after suffering from schizophrenia. The film explores her life, his parents’ relationship, and the taboo surrounding mental illness in the South Asian immigrant community.

Grappling with such difficult personal experiences was at times “nerve-racking” and “really, really fraught,” Sabu says. Even writing grant proposals meant revisiting dark moments, but the process toughened him and created a necessary distance between Sabu as a person and as a filmmaker. By the time he held screenings of rough cuts for Kartemquin colleagues last year, he felt prepared to receive their criticism on a professional level. “Ultimately, you just have to have faith that it’s going to make your film better,” Sabu says. “Oftentimes a film won’t really find an audience until it’s basically done and there’s all these problems with it that might have been addressed earlier in the process.”  

Kartemquin filmmakers receive such essential feedback early and often. Although ideas can come from anywhere, all Kartemquin films are made in-house. Independent producers and directors present their vision and the organization helps them bring it to fruition. It provides office space, equipment, editing, funding, and distribution for the projects it supports. “It’s very hard to make a film without that,” says Hoffman, and Kartemquin’s presence means “there is at least one place in Chicago where documentary filmmakers can go to try to make movies.”

For many who go, Kartemquin’s most important service is the collaborative community it provides to help see them through the creative process. “We don’t want to make films with people where we’re just putting our name on it or they’re just sending us rough cuts,” says Tim Horsburgh, director of communication and distribution.

“We feel like there’s a special sort of connectivity in the building.” The offices have a definite grad-school vibe. Other than a couple of quiet nooks, rooms are big and open, the interaction casual and irreverent, the spirit communal and egalitarian. From everyone, interns on up, ideas are encouraged. Expected. Demanded. Beckie Stocchetti, AB’08, Kartemquin’s director of engagement and programs until this past March, remembers from her internship how Blumenthal would draw everyone into a conversation, even if it meant he had to “call you out” to express an opinion.

Eventually, Quinn points out, Stocchetti became the one calling on people. Points of view often collide, echoing how Quinn and Blumenthal used to tussle over everything from where to end a scene to the merits of Hollywood movies neither of them had seen. (They joked about having their own television show, à la Siskel and Ebert, called Not at the Movies.) Their combative, productive partnership was an example for everyone, Stocchetti says, of “people who can argue about everything but still ultimately respect each other and work together to finish a project.” Finishing projects once strained the organization’s resources. Everyone worked part time on films and part time on other priorities, such as promoting diversity in the independent documentary industry and advocating for fair-use rights.

“Whenever the films would ramp up,” says Justine Nagan, AM’04, Kartemquin’s executive director from 2008 to 2015, “there would be no one left to mind the store.” Nagan—who left last year to lead American Documentary Inc., the producer of the PBS series POV—oversaw Kartemquin’s evolution into a more stable and self-sustaining operation. Before becoming executive director, she ran communications and distribution. What qualified as a great accomplishment back then was an agreement with the Museum of Modern Art in New York to sell DVDs of Golub. The museum ordered six copies. Nagan’s reaction was, “Hallelujah, victory!” She conceived of a more ambitious enterprise that could devote undivided attention to all of Kartemquin’s priorities. The process began with a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Creative and Effective Institutions award in 2007.

Nagan formalized many programs that the organization had operated on a shoestring, developing a fundraising structure and expanding the staff to support both the filmmaking process and the wider mission. She started KTQ Labs, for example, as part of that wider mission. The monthly forum invites outside filmmakers to screen rough cuts and receive feedback from Kartemquin’s brain trust. Kartemquin had long opened its doors for screenings, but KTQ Labs has created more opportunities, and interest has grown to the point that there’s now a waiting list.

Another relatively recent venture, Diverse Voices in Docs, offers mentorship to aspiring minority filmmakers in partnership with the Community Film Workshop of Chicago. “We don’t just make films,” Horsburgh says. “We’re enlarging the filmmaking community here in Chicago.”

As Kartemquin’s audience and influence have grown over the past half century, so has Quinn’s view of the forces that give documentary film its persuasive power—art and activism. At a recent board meeting, a question arose about where members fall along the spectrum between those two supposed poles. Quinn rejected the entire premise. “It’s a false dichotomy. That was my problem with it,” he says. “You have to be about both, and you can be extreme about both.”

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.